This past Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Here are nine things you should know about the battle that changed both the outcome of World War II and also the course of human history:
1. On June 6, 1944, American, British, and Canadian military forces launched Operation Overlord, the codename for the largest amphibious invasion in world history. This first day of the invasion—known as D-Day—began the Battle of Normandy on five separate beachheads in Normandy, France.
2. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force in the European theatre, oversaw planning for Operation Overlord. On the day of the invasion Eisenhower issued an Order of the Day that was distributed to the 175,000-member expeditionary force:
Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is will trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
3. What does the “D” in D-Day mean? Military historians still disagree about exactly what the letter means. Some claim it merely stands for Day and that the coded designation “D-Day” was used for the day of any important invasion or military operation. Others sources, however, claim that when someone wrote to General Eisenhower in 1964 asking for an explanation, his executive assistant Brigadier General Robert Schultz answered: “General Eisenhower asked me to respond to your letter. Be advised that any amphibious operation has a ‘departed date’; therefore the shortened term ‘D-Day’ is used.”
4. As Prime Minister Winston Churchill said after the invasion, “This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place.” Prior to D-Day, about 3,200 reconnaissance missions were launched to take photos of the landing zone. On the day of the battle, which began after midnight, more than 2,200 allied bombers dropped approximately 7 million pounds of bombs in what turned out to be a mostly ineffective air bombardment of the beaches and inland. This wave was followed by another 10,521 combat aircraft and 24,000 airborne assault troops (i.e., paratroopers).
5. U.S. troops went ashore on the landing beaches at 6:31 a.m. Within the first few hours of the invasion the Allies landed more than 160,000 troops at Normandy, which included 73,000 Americans. The heaviest losses were on Omaha beach, where U.S. forces suffered 2,000 casualties. In the first hour the chance of becoming a casualty was one in two.
6. While the preparation and logistics of getting to the battle were an impressive feat, the outcome of the operation relied on the men who were fighting. Historian Tony Williams notes that “whatever the massive logistical build-up, extensive preparations, and impressive firepower of the Allies, the success of the invasion depended upon the individual soldiers.” A postwar study by the 116th Infantry Division found, as historian Peter Caddick-Adams explains, that the success of the invasion was “largely to the initiative and aggressiveness of small unit leaders who made the best of a bad situation. Landing in most cases far off their assigned objectives, with large losses of men and equipment in the water, they had to improvise in order to cope with the strange fortifications to their front.” As Williams adds, “They were citizen-soldiers of a free society who were allowed to take the initiative and debate the best course of action as they fought together in small groups in pursuit of a common purpose.”
7. Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed or wounded on Omaha Beach, most of them in the first few hours. (In comparison, that is almost twice the number [1,833] of those killed in action in Afghanistan over a period of 17 years.) In total, more than 4,400 Allied soldiers lost their lives during the invasion. Still, this was far fewer than the expected number of casualties Allied leaders had expected. On the eve of D-Day, Churchill said to his wife, “Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 men may have been killed?”
8. After D-Day, the fighting of World War II would continue for nearly another year. But as Marc LiVecche says, “D-Day was in many ways the first day of the end of the war in Europe.” By August 1944, the Allied forces had liberated northern France and begun to move into Germany where they met Soviet forces and ended Nazi rule.
9. On the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech in Normandy extolling the courage and faith of the soldiers:
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge—and pray God we have not lost it—that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.
Something else helped the men of D-day: their rockhard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause.